White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough toured Guantanamo Bay with two top senators to follow up on President Barack Obama’s renewed vow to close the war on terror facility.
The visit to the prison — where most of the 166 remaining detainees are on a hunger strike unprecedented in its scope — was the first by an administration official since one by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009.
“We continue to believe that it is in our national interest to end detention at Guantanamo, with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations,” McDonough said in a joint statement with Republican Senator John McCain and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“We intend to work, with a plan by Congress and the administration together, to take the steps necessary to make that happen.”
The three toured Camp 5 and Camp 6, where most detainees live apart from those considered “high-value” prisoners, as well as health facilities and the courtroom where the military commissions tribunals are held, Guantanamo spokesman Captain Robert Durand told AFP.
Prison commander Rear Admiral John Smith welcomed the group and detailed “our mission, resources and current operations,” Durand added.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the trip aimed to assess the situation at the camp and to “discuss the steps that we can take with the Congress to meet the president’s goal of closing the facility.”
Obama recommitted to closing the military-run camp in Cuba during a major speech on national security and counterterrorism policy last month.
McCain, Obama’s Republican rival in the 2008 presidential race, supports closing Guantanamo, but said on “Fox News Sunday” in May that the Obama administration had put “no coherent plan” forward to do so.
Feinstein was a leading voice calling on Obama to try again to close the facility, after he failed to honor a promise to do so within a year of taking office in January 2009.
She also called on Obama to review his moratorium on sending back prisoners cleared for release to strife-torn Yemen, a step Obama said he would take in his speech last month.
The number of hunger strikers has now reached 104 at the camp and a record 41 are being force-fed through tubes, while four are in the prison hospital, according to US military authorities.
Obama last month called on the Pentagon to designate a site on US soil to hold military tribunals for terror suspects now at Guantanamo Bay, and said Congress must drop efforts to thwart his closure plans.
“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said.
However, he offered no solution for what to do with inmates deemed too dangerous for release but who cannot be tried because evidence against them was obtained through coercion and may not be admissible in court.